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Madrid just dismissed the Catalan government. Here’s what you need to know.

- October 27, 2017

In the weeks after Catalonia’s controversial referendum on Oct. 1, tensions have been mounting between Catalan secessionists and the Spanish government. Here’s a rundown of what happened this week — and what it means.

Although surveys show that only a minority of Catalans support independence, separatists insist that the results of the Oct. 1 vote gave them a mandate to declare unilateral independence. So on Oct. 27, the Catalan regional Parliament did just that.

The Spanish government, faced with a threat to Spanish territorial integrity, responded quickly. Spain invoked Article 155 of the constitution to suspend Catalan self-government. Article 155 lets the national government step in when a regional government “doesn’t comply with the obligations of the Constitution or other laws it imposes, or acts in a way that seriously undermines the interests of Spain.”

Article 155 has never been used before, so this is new territory. On Friday night, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy dismissed the Catalan government and called a regional election Dec. 21.

Will Madrid’s clampdown boost support for independence?

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont had earlier considered the possibility of holding a regional election, which may have cooled tensions.

However, hard-line separatists in his coalition refused to accept that — and it is not hard to see why. In the 2015 regional election, the secessionist coalition and its allies — representing all separatist parties in the region — received 48 percent of the vote. Distortions created by the electoral system gave the secessionists a slight majority of five seats in the Catalan Parliament.

A recent poll suggests that secessionists would have a similar narrow majority in a new Parliament. However, given the narrow margin, there is a real risk that parties seeking independence could lose their majority.

Scholars have long known that political elites influence people’s attitudes, particularly when there is conflict. It might be tempting to conclude that the present conflict will boost Catalans’ pro-independence support, especially after Madrid’s repression. However, citizens are not blank slates who can be easily manipulated by their leaders.

My research suggests that most Catalans are unlikely to accept the declaration of independence.

Here’s why: Political elites are at their most effective when they tap into people’s predispositions. Most Catalans cannot be induced to support a break with Spain because most of them identify with both Catalonia and Spain. This is largely the outcome of more than a century of mass migration, as the more rapidly industrializing Catalonia drew workers from poorer regions of Spain. Consequently, most Catalans today also have roots elsewhere in Spain, and don’t identify solely with the land that offered them opportunities.

Surveys show mixed support for Catalan independence

What these Catalans with dual Spanish-Catalan identities and more nationalistic Catalans have in common are strong, negative feelings toward Spain’s governing conservative People’s Party (PP). The PP was notably opposed to increasing Catalan self-government and recognizing Catalan distinctiveness. A survey this summer found that 85 percent of Catalans say they would never vote for the party. It is possible that this aversion to Spain’s ruling party could push otherwise less-nationalistic Catalans toward accepting unilateral independence.

However, the same survey reveals another set of negative partisan attitudes — this time aimed at Catalan nationalist parties. A majority of Catalans (56 percent) say they would never vote for Puigdemont’s secessionist party.

In addition to pursuing controversial secessionist positions, Puigdemont’s party adopted unpopular spending cuts and was involved in major corruption scandals. Last year the embattled party even changed its name, from Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) to the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT), to avoid losing too much support. The party had to join forces with another nationalist party, Catalan Republican Left (ERC), in the last regional election to remain relevant. The ERC, now the most popular nationalist party, is only moderately less disliked: 45 percent of Catalans say they would never vote for it.

In a survey experiment I ran last year as part of a Making Electoral Democracy Work survey, one question reminded Catalans with dual identities that Spain’s unpopular People’s Party opposes unilateral independence. The survey responses showed this statement increased their support for independence — but only among those who support one of the Catalan nationalist parties.

Only the parties that are part of the governing coalition in the regional Parliament support independence. Most of the opposition walked out when the Catalan Parliament voted to declare Catalan independence.

Since a majority of Catalans seem to dislike the nationalist parties, it’s unlikely that most Catalans can be pushed to accept the declaration of independence, despite the escalating conflict. According to a recent poll taken Oct. 16-19, only a minority of Catalans (36 percent) support independence, with a similar proportion (40 percent) in agreement that the outcome of the Oct. 1 vote  justifies a declaration of independence.

What comes next is a big question. No one knows how far the Spanish government will go to take away Catalan autonomy. What is clear is that most Catalans don’t want Catalonia to be independent, but they also don’t want to see it lose its autonomy. What a majority of Catalans can agree on is calling a regional election, so that new political leadership can find a way to resolve the present conflict.

Eric Guntermann is a postdoctoral researcher at the Université de Montréal whose study on party influence on nationalism in Spain was recently accepted at Party Politics. He is a member of the Research Chair in Electoral Studies and the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship.